Friday, June 19, 2009

When Is a Design a NEW Design?

Just askin', you know.

I'm a member of a Ravelry group that will remain nameless because I'm about to ask a rude question about the moderator/owner/designer.

When is a design a Design? That is, when does a modification of a technique become a unique product?

This m/o/d is all upset because she says someone else is claiming she designed the m/o/d's unique design and is teaching it. The m/o/d says it's hers, it was hers first, and the other person is basically a copyright thief. (She actually said that in a very nice, non-confrontational way because she's really a nice person.)

Now the design is very pleasant. It's basically a modular blanket made of leftover sock yarn. Nothing you'd toss off your bed if you found it there. Probably a huge pain to make, what with the 9,000 little ends to weave in, but nothing wrong with it. In fact, kind of cute if you happen to have several thousand yards of leftover sock yarn lying around.

But is it unique? It's a garter-stitch knitted modular square turned on its point and attached to other squares with an applied I-cord binding around the edge. Chris Bylsma teaches a pattern called Crayon Box Jacket that is basically the blanket with sleeves (but the squares not turned on their points--knitted together side to side). Ginger Luter takes that same technique and makes any number of garments--capes and little tops and all manner of whatnots--point-to-point or side-to-side--doesn't much seem to matter.

Jane Slicer-Smith teaches the technique and her kits sell for hundreds of dollars (can't wait for her book to come out--more in my budget!). There's a sock called Diamond Patch that's the same concept knit in the round. Last year I made a baby blanket for the beautemous Ruby that's the identical concept without the applied I-cord and made out of one variegated yarn, not bits and pieces of sock yarn. I've been knitting for two or three years on a vest from Tess Designs that's the same concept with two armholes and a ribbed top. (And no, it's not the fault of the concept or Tess that I can't seem to finish it! That's a Me problem.)

So, when does a technique become a Design? If I make it from Noro (I know, I'm insane to think about it) and use 6 inch squares instead of 3 inch squares and put a garter stitch border on it, is it my design or is it my view of a technique? Or did I steal it? And if you make the same thing, did you steal it from me? Or did you just have the same idea about the same technique and put your own spin on it?

To take it one step further, when I made Wendy Johnson's sock but then screwed the pattern up, did I make a new design? Well, I put my own heel on it, not hers, and there's a subtle difference (which I prefer to consider a Design Modification rather than a Huge Error) in the lace pattern. But would I have thought of using that particular lace pattern on a sock? Maybe, maybe not. But I'm considering it's Wendy's idea with a little me thrown in.

I think there are a lot of knitters who are creative and innovative and imaginative but there aren't that many true designers among us. But we all want to publish our designs on the web like we're Designers. In my own highly personal and possibly wrong opinion, the true designers are the ones like who come up with their own take on many different techniques and when you see their designs on the street you say, OMG, that's a Jane Slicer-Smith, isn't it? Because she does lots of interesting things--enough to fill a book and to make me slaver over the thought of taking one of her classes. (Stop whining, Woof ... maybe she'll come to Stitches South next year.)

And then there's one of the Noble Knitters, who knits a wide variety of things but never uses a pattern because she comes from a tradition that doesn't use written patterns. I'd call her a designer because she's found her own way to use techniques in a unique way.

By the way, the original m/o/d in the discussion above is no slouch either. She's got everyone and their brother sending her their leftover yarn so she can finish her blanket. Now, there's a unique concept!

Just wanted to bring it up for discussion. Talk amongst yourselves. Now, back to our regularly scheduled program. (And yes, I know the hibiscus at the top doesn't have anything to do with anything. It's out of my back yard and I thought it was pretty. So there!)


-- Jolie said...

I think you are correct that to call something a design it ought to have a not-obvious unique feature. If a group of us on knit night could think it up on the fly, then it's probably just personal spin or public domain. We expect a spark of something unique and unexpected in a design. Otherwise, why would we need the designer if we could come up with it on our own?

Jane Prater said...

Thousands of discussions about this over the years. General rule of thumb for me is that WRITTEN instructions are copyrightable. You can't print it out and teach it. But if you take something made from widely used techniques and write your own instructions to use for a class, that is doable. Nice people will credit the source of their inspiration.

Merely changing one part of a unique pattern such as Wendy's socks does not count as a new design---just a mod of her design.

You just can't copyright a mitered square, but you shouldn't steal someone's words describing how to do it. Use your own.